Archdukes, Cynicism, and World War I: Crash Course World History #36
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course World History, and today we’re gonna talk about World War I. The so-called, Great War?
World War I wasn’t the most destructive war, or the first total war, and it certainly wasn’t - despite its billing - the war to end all wars. But it was the war to change all wars. World War I changed our outlook, it normalized cynicism and irony, which, I think you’ll agree, are kind of dominant lenses for describing our world today. Basically, I’d argue that World War I helped make possible everything from The Simpsons to intentionally unattractive mustaches.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green! are you referring to me?
Oh, Me From the Past, you’re an embarrassment to our family. Also to all our other selves.
Most people think of World War I as a tragedy because it didn’t need to happen and didn’t really accomplish much, except for creating social and economic conditions that made World War II possible. So when we talk about the causes, inevitably, we’re also assigning blame.
The immediate cause was, of course, the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, by a Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. Quick aside: It’s worth noting that the first big war of the 20th century began with an act of terrorism.
So Franz Ferdinand wasn’t particularly well-liked by his uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph - now that is a mustache! But even so, the assassination led Austria to issue an ultimatum to Serbia, whereupon Serbia accepted some, but not all, of Austria’s demands, leading Austria to declare war against Serbia. And then Russia, due to its alliance with the Serbs, then mobilized its army; Germany, because it had an alliance with Austria, told Russia to stop mobilizing, which Russia failed to do, so then Germany mobilized its own army, declared war on Russia, cemented an alliance with the Ottomans, and then declared war on France, because, you know, France.
Germany’s War plan, the Schlieffen Plan, required that it invade France in the most expedient way possible, which as you can see is via Belgium, And Great Britain was a friend of Belgium, I mean, as much as anyone can be a friend of Belgium, and so they declared war on Germany.
So by August 4th, all the major powers of Europe are at war with each other. By the end of the month, Japan, honoring its alliance with Britain, would be at war with Germany and Austria as well. When all was said and done, counting colonies and spheres of influence, the world map would eventually look like this. You’ll never guess who wins.
So there were many opportunities NOT to mobilize and declare war, none of which were taken. Some blame the web of alliances itself, which is what Woodrow Wilson tried to fix with the League of Nations. Some blame Russia, the first big country to mobilize. Some blame Germany for the inflexibility of the Schlieffen plan. Leninists claim war grew out of imperialism and was fueled by capitalist rivalries; and others claim it was a war between Germany’s radical modernism and Britain’s traditional conservatism.
But if I had to assign blame, I’d go with the alliance system and the cultural belief that war was, in general, good for nations. War helped define who was "them" and who was "us", and doing that strengthened the idea of us. And before World War I, war was perceived to be necessary and often even glorious.
The trench warfare on the Western Front is most famous for its brutal futility - Great Britain and France on one side, Germany on the other, with no man’s land between. World War I was a writer’s war, and there’s a lot of metaphorical resonance in living men digging holes where they would in time die. The lines of trenches on the Western Front covered only about 400 miles as the crow flies, but because of the endless zigzagging, the trenches themselves may have run as much as 25,000 miles.
But the stalemate of trench warfare wasn’t seen on every front. Especially at the beginning of the war, there was a lot of offensive movement, especially in the initial German strikes, especially on the Eastern Front, the Germans were pretty successful against the Russians, who had a large but pretty hapless army. Also, for those blessed few of you who sat through all of Lawrence of Arabia, you’ll remember that T. E. Lawrence’s exploits took place in the context of World War I, with the British battling the Ottomans.
This brings up an important point: World War I featured combatants from around the world - Britain’s army, especially, included soldiers from India, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, who was just happy to be invited. Africans served with the French, and for a lot of these people, their experiences helped build nationalist movements when survivors returned home after the war.
That’s about as close as we get to a silver lining. The war itself was incredibly destructive. Over 15 million people were killed and over 20 million wounded. In France, 13.3% of the male population between the age of 15 and 49 died in the war. The war also saw a lot of civilians die, especially in the Ottoman Empire where more than 2 million of the 3 million people killed were non-combatants.
But like so many other wars, World War I’s most efficient killer was disease. Stupid disease, always hijacking history. Dysentery, typhus, and cholera were rampant, and otherwise minor injuries would prove fatal when gangrene set in. I mean, 25% of arm wounds among German soldiers were fatal. And that’s not even to mention the famous influenza epidemic that broke out toward the end of the war, which killed three times as many people as the war itself.
The main reason the war was so deadly was the combination of new technology and outdated tactics. While we may think about tanks, airplanes and poison gas, all of which made their debut in the First World War, the two most devastating technologies were American: machine guns and barbed wire. Attempting to march in lines towards an enemy’s trench, soldiers of both sides were mowed down by machine gun fire.
According to one German machine gunner at the battle of the Somme in 1916 : “The [British] officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.” At the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men in the first day of fighting. Remember the old colonialist verse, “Whatever happens / we have got / the maxim gun / and they have not”? Yeah, well, now everybody had machine guns.
One of the things we try to remember here at Crash Course is that people both make history and are made by it. World War I brings this fact into stark relief because we know so much about the soldiers who fought in it, and how they wrote about the war really changed our relationship with systemic violence.
For most soldiers, there was nothing glamorous or heroic about this war. For the British, for example, the trenches were two things above all: wet and smelly. The dampness came from the fact that the British trenches were in the wettest part of Flanders. The smell was mainly decomposing flesh. Nothing glorious about that.
On the upside, soldiers were at least rarely hungry, and there was a lot of food from home, which is worth underscoring, because it reminds us that home wasn’t very far away. Even for the British, at their closest the front was only 70 miles from England. They could read newspapers from London one day later than Londoners could.
While going “over the top” - Stan, no puns in this episode! - Right, while going “over the top” of the trench to cross no-man’s land and attack the enemy trench is what lights our romantic imagination, most soldiers’ lives were dominated by the fear of shelling. According to a journal published by French soldiers: “There’s nothing more horrible in war than being shelled. It’s a form of torture that the soldier can’t see the end of. Suddenly he’s afraid of being buried alive… The man stays put in his hole, helplessly waiting for, hoping for, a miracle.”
Although soldiers then, as now, lived under conditions it's difficult to imagine, there was more than even the threat of death to distress them. According to German officer Ernst Jünger, it was not “danger, however extreme … that depresses the spirit of men, so much as over-fatigue and wretched conditions.” And for most soldiers, especially the British and French, the pay for their efforts was pitiful. So why did they even keep fighting? Duty, nationalism, loyalty to comrades, and fear of being shot for desertion all played a role.
But so did alcohol. As one British medical officer said: “Had it not been for the rum ration, I do not think we should have won the war.” Ernst Jünger also remarked on the propensity of soldiers to drink their troubles away: “Though ten out of twelve had fallen, still the last two, as sure as death, were to be found on the first evening of rest over the bottle drinking a silent health to their dead ‘companions’”.
Oh, it’s time for the open letter? Whew! An open letter to alcohol. I wonder what’s in today’s secret compartment. Oh, shocking, it’s a golf club. And an actual disco golf ball made by a crash course fan!
Dear Alcohol - oh, that’s...
Like disease, you’ve been a key figure in human history, despite not actually being a person, and for millennia, you’ve played an important role in war, often helping soldiers do their duty, often distracting them from it.
But here’s the thing, alcohol, in my experience, which is extensive, if you need to be drunk to do something, you should maybe not do the thing. Unless of course, the thing is golf.
Best wishes, John Green.
So what did we take away from the so-called Great War? Well, not much.
Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, fixed the blame for the war on Germany, which proved ruinous to the German economy and destructive to its political institutions. And unless you’re really nostalgic for totalitarian communism, you’ve gotta say that World War I was also a disaster for Russia, because it facilitated the rise of the Bolsheviks.
The Russian Revolution had two phases. In the first phase, called the February Revolution, because get this, it occurred in February, army mutinies and civil unrest forced the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty which had been in power in Russia since, like, forever, to use a proper historian term.
The monarchy was replaced by a provisional government led (eventually) by Alexander Kerensky, which made the terrible decision to keep Russia in the war, which led to the October Revolution, so called because it happened in October, in which Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks took over, famously promising the Russian people... “peace, bread, and land.” To which the Russian people responded, “Hey, you just named of our three favorite things.”
Lenin’s first big achievement was signing a separate peace with Germany and getting Russia out of the war, which was helpful to him since he needed to fight a civil war that wouldn’t end until 1922. This might’ve helped Germany, too, except the US entered the war on the side of the British and the French.
This led to another outcome of the war: increased geopolitical influence for the U.S. The U.S. was already becoming a major economic power, and being able to avoid the destruction and loss of manpower associated with World War I certainly didn’t hurt. The war helped catapult the U.S. from being a debtor nation to a creditor one, and Wilson’s leading role in the negotiations at Versailles – even though he actually didn’t get what he wanted – made America a big player on the world stage for the first time.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
Just so we don’t get completely Eurocentric, another major outcome of the war was the end of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the nation-state of Turkey. The rest of the world saw some change too, but not much for the better: In Africa, Britain took Germany’s colonies, and even though Indians fought and died in a higher percentage than Americans in World War I, India didn’t gain any real autonomy.
All these terrible outcomes led to a general sense of disappointment in literary circles, And this feeling of pointlessness and cynicism was expressed by the writers of the “lost generation.” It was a war full of loss: Millions of people were lost. Traditional ideals of war’s nobility and heroism were lost as well: I mean, what is heroism when you’re just sitting in a trench, waiting to be blown up?
And after World War I, war might be necessary, but it would never again be glorious. We see this shift in the writing and art that emerged from the Great War as artists transitioned from romanticism to modernism. Think of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which is about a men rendered not noble but impotent by war. This dark, cruel irony here - you go to war to become a man and war takes away the organ often called “your manhood” - that defined Hemingway’s worldview. And it also defines ours.
Imperialism: Crash Course World History #35Hi, I'm John Green, this is CrashCourse World History, and today we're gonna discuss 19th century imperialism. So the 19th century certainly didn't invent the empire, but it did take it to new heights, by which we mean lows, or possibly heights, I dunno, I can't decide, roll the intro while I think about it.
Yeah, I don't know, I'm still undecided. Let's begin with China! When last we checked in, China was a thriving manufacturing power, about to be overtaken by Europe, but still heavily involved in world trade, especially an importer of silver from the Spanish empire.
Europeans had to use silver because they didn't really produce anything else the Chinese wanted, and that state of affairs continued through the 18th century. For example, in 1793, the Macartney Mission tried to get better trade conditions with China and was a total failure.
Here's the Qianlong Emperor's well known response to the British: "Hither to all European nations including your own country's barbarian merchants have carried on their trade with our celestial empire at Canton. Such has been the procedure for many years, although our celestial empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders."
But then Europeans, especially the British, found something that the Chinese would buy: opium. By the 1830's, British free trade policy unleashed a flood of opium in China, which threatened China's favorable balance of trade. It also created a lot of drug addicts.
And then in 1839 the Chinese responded to what they saw as these unfair trade practices with...a stern letter that they never actually sent. Commissioner Lin Zexu drafted a response that contained a memorable threat to "cut off trade in rhubarb, silk, and tea, all valuable products of ours without which foreigners could not live."
But even if the British had received this terrifying threat to their precious rhubarb supply, they probably wouldn't have responded because selling drugs is super lucrative.
So the Chinese made like tea partiers, confiscating a bunch of British opium and chucking it into the sea. And then the British responded to this by demanding compensation, and access to Chinese territory where they could carry out their trade.
And then the Chinese were like, "Man that seems a little bit harsh," whereupon the British sent in gunships, opening trade with Canton by force.
Chinese General Yijing made a counter attack in 1842 that included a detailed plan to catapult flaming monkeys onto British ships. Stan, is that true?
All right, apparently the plans actually involved strapping fireworks to monkeys' backs and were never carried out, but still!
Slightly off topic: obviously I don't want anyone to light monkeys on fire. I'm just saying that flaming monkeys lend themselves to a lot of great band names, like the Sizzling Simians, Burning Bonobos, Immolated Marmoset...Stan, sometimes I feel like I should give up teaching world history and just become a band name generator. That's my real gift.
Anyway, due to lack of monkey fireworks, the Chinese counterattacks were unsuccessful, and they eventually signed the treaty of Nanjing, which stated that Britain got Hong Kong and five other treaty ports, as well as the equivalent of two billion dollars in cash. Also, the Chinese basically gave up all sovereignty to European spheres of influence, wherein Europeans were subject to their laws, not Chinese laws.
In exchange for all of this, China got a hot slice of nothing. You might think the result of this war would be a shift in the balance of trade in Britain's favor, but that wasn't immediately the case. In fact, the British were importing so much tea from China that the trade deficit actually rose more than 30 billion dollars.
But eventually after another war and one of the most destructive civil rebellions in Chinese and possibly world history, the Taiping Rebellion, the situation was reversed, and Europeans, especially the British, became the dominant economic power in China.
Okay. So but when we think about the 19th century imperialism, we usually think about the way that Europe turned Africa from this [map] into this [map], the so-called scramble for Africa. Speaking of scrambles and the European colonization of Africa, you know what they say--sometimes to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs. And sometimes, you break a lot of eggs and you don't get an omelette.
Europeans have been involved in Africa since the 16th century, when the Portuguese used their cannons to take control of cities on coast to set up their trading post empire, but in the second half of the 19th century, Europe suddenly and spectacularly succeeded at colonizing basically all of Africa. Why?
Well, the biggest reason that Europeans were able to extend their grasp over so much of the world was the same reason they wanted to do so in the first place: industrialization. Nationalism played its part, of course. European states saw it as a real bonus to be able say that they had colonies--so much so, that a children's rhyme in An ABC for Baby Patriotswent, "C is for colonies. Rightly we boast. That of all great countries Great Britain has the most."
But it was mostly, not to get all Marxist on you or anything, about controlling the means of production. Europeans wanted colonies to secure sources of raw materials, especially cotton, copper, iron, and rubber, that were used to fuel their growing industrial economies.
And in addition to providing the motive for imperialism, European industrialization also provided the means. Europeans didn't fail to take over territory in Africa until the late 19th century because they didn't want to; they failed because they couldn't. This was mostly due to disease.
Unlike in the Americas, Africans weren't devastated by diseases like smallpox because they'd had smallpox for centuries and were just as immune to it as Europeans were. Not only that, but Africa had diseases of its own, including yellow fever, malaria, and sleeping sickness, all of which killed Europeans in staggering numbers.
Also, nagana was a disease endemic to Africa that killed horses, which made it difficult for Europeans to take advantage of African grasslands, and also difficult for them to get inland, because their horses would die as they tried to carry stuff.
Also, while in the 16th century Europeans did have guns, they were pretty useless, especially without horses. So most fighting was done the old-fashioned way, with swords. That worked pretty well in the Americas, unless you were the Incas or the Aztecs, but it didn't work in Africa, because the Africans also had swords. And spears, and axes.
So as much as they might have wanted to colonize Africa in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, Africa's mosquitoes, microbes, and people were too much for them.
So what made the difference? Technology.
First, steam ships made it possible for Europeans to travel inland, bringing supplies and personnel via Africa's navigable rivers. No horses? No problem.
Even more important was quinine medicine, sometimes in the form of tonic water, mixed into refreshing quintessentially British gin and tonics. Quinine isn't as effective as modern antimalarial medication, and it doesn't cure the disease, but it does help moderate its effects.
But of course the most important technology that enabled Europeans to dominate Africa was guns. By the 19th century, European gun technology had improved dramatically, especially with the introduction of the Maxim machine gun, which allowed Europeans to wipe out Africans in battle after battle. Of course, machine guns were effective when wielded by Africans, too, but Africans had fewer of them.
Oh, it's time for the open letter? And my chair is back!
An open letter to Hiram Maxim. But first, let's see what's in the secret compartment today. Oh, it's Darth Vader! What a great reminder of imperialism.
Dear Hiram Maxim,
I hate you. It's not so much that you invented the Maxim machine gun, although obviously that's a little bit problematic, or even that you look like the poor man's Colonel Sanders. First off, you're a possible bigamist. I have a long standing opposition to bigamy. Secondly, you were born an American but became a Brit, thereby metaphorically machine gunning our founding fathers. But most importantly, among your many inventions was the successful amusement park ride, the Captive Flying Machine. Mr. Maxim, I hate the Captive Flying Machine. The Captive Flying Machine has resulted in many a girlfriend telling me that I'm a coward. I'm not a coward, I just don't want to die up there! It's all your fault, Hiram Maxim, and nobody believes your story about the lightbulb.
Best wishes, John Green.
All right. So, here is something that often gets overlooked. European imperialism involved a lot of fighting and a lot of dying. And when we say that Europe came to dominate Africa, for the most part that domination came through wars, which killed lots of Africans and also lots of Europeans, although most of them died from disease. It's very, very important to remember that Africans did not meekly acquiesce to European hegemony: they resisted, often violently, but ultimately they were defeated by a technologically superior enemy.
In this respect, they were a lot like the Chinese, and also the Indians, and the Vietnamese, and--you get the picture.
So by the end of the 19th century, most of Africa and much of Asia had been colonized by European powers. I mean, even Belgium got in on it, and they weren't even a country at the beginning of the 19th century. I mean, Belgium has enjoyed like, 12 years of sovereignty in the last 3 millennia.
Notable exceptions include Japan, which was happily pursuing its own imperialism, Thailand, Iran, and of course Afghanistan. Because no one can conquer Afghanistan, unless you are--wait for it--the Mongols. [Mongol montage]
It's tempting to imagine Europe ruling their colonies with the proverbial topaz fist, and while there was always the threat of violence, the truth is a lot more complicated.
Let's go to the Thought Bubble.
In most cases, Europeans ruled their colonies with the help of, and sometimes completely through, intermediaries and collaborators. For example, in the 1890's in India, there were fewer than 1,000 British administrators supposedly ruling over 300 million Indians. The vast majority of British troops at any given time in India, more than two-thirds, were in fact Indians under the command of British officers.
Because of their small numbers relative to local populations, most European colonizers resorted to indirect rule, relying on governments that were already there but exerting control over their leaders.
Frederick Lugard, who was Britain's head honcho in Nigeria for a time, called this "rule through and by the natives." This worked particularly well with British administrators, who were primarily middle class men but had aristocratic pretensions, and were often pleased to associate with the highest echelons of Indian or African society.
Now, this isn't to say that indigenous rulers were simply puppets. Often, they retained real power. This was certainly true in India, where more than a third of the territory was ruled by Indian princes. The French protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia were ruled by Arab monarchs, and the French also ruled through native kings in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
For the most part, Europeans could almost always rely on their superior military technology to coerce local rulers into doing what the Europeans wanted. And they could replace native officials with Europeans if they had to. But in general, they preferred to rule indirectly. It was easier and cheaper. Also, less malaria.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
So while we can't know why all native princes who ruled in the context of European imperialism put up with it, we can make some pretty good guesses. First of all, they were still rulers. They got to keep their prestige and their fancy hats, and to some extent their power. Many were also able to gain advantages through their service, like access to European education for themselves and for their children. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, was the son of an Indian high official, which made it possible for him to study law in England.
And we can't overlook the sheer practicality of it. The alternative was to resist, and that usually didn't work out well. I'm reminded of the famous couplet, "Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not."
But even with this enormous technological advantage, it wasn't always easy. For example, it took 25 years, from 1845 to 1870, for the British to fully defeat the Maori on New Zealand. Because the Maori were kick-ass fighters who had mastered musketry and defensive warfare. And I will remind you, it is not cursing if you're talking about donkeys.
In fact, it took them being outnumbered three-to-one with the arrival of 750,000 settlers for the Maori to finally capitulate. And I will remind you that the rule against splitting infinitives is not an actual rule.
Those of you more familiar with U.S. history might notice a parallel between the Maori and some of the Native American tribes, like the Apaches and the Lakota, a good reminder that the United States did some imperial expansion of its own as part of its nationalizing project in the 19th century.
But back to Africa. Sometimes African rulers were so good at adapting European technology that they were able to successfully resist imperialism. Ethiopia's Menelik II defeated the Italians in battle, securing not just independence but an empire of his own.
But embracing European-style modernization could also be problematic, as Khedive Ismail of Egypt found out during his rule in the late 19th century. He celebrated his imperial success by commissioning an opera, Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, for the opening of the Cairo Opera House in 1871. Giuseppe Verdi, by the way--no relation to John Green.
And Ismail had ambitions of extending Egypt's control up the Nile, west toward Lake Chad. But to do that, he needed money, and that's where he got into trouble. His borrowing bankrupted Egypt and led to Britain's taking control over the country's finances and its shares in the Suez Canal that Ismail had built, with French engineers and French capital, in 1869. The British sent in 1,300 bureaucrats to fix Egypt's finances, an invasion of red tape that led to a nationalist uprising, which brought on a full-scale British intervention after 1881 in order to protect British interests.
This business imperialism, as it is sometimes known, is really at the heart of the imperialistic impulse. Industrialized nations push economic integration upon developing nations, and then extract value from those developing nations, just as you would from a mine or a field you owned.
And here we see political history and economic history coming together again. As western corporations grew in the latter part of the 19th century, their influence grew as well, both in their home countries and in the lands where they were investing.
But ultimately, whether the colonizer is a business enterprise or a political one, the complicated legacy of imperialism survives. It's why your bananas are cheap, why your call centers are Indian, why your chocolate comes from Africa, and why everything else comes from China.
These imperialistic adventures may have only lasted a century, but it was the century in which the world as we know it today began to take shape.
Here you go. There are not focus questions and answers for 30, so if you want those, you need to do them yourself on AP Achiever.
Don't forget about the podcasts for 30 and 31 on the Podcast Archives page
Chapter 28 has too much in it to make a Thrive PowerPoint, so make sure you are reading this week or you are going to be in trouble come Thursday. Below are all of the Crash Courses Associated with chapter 28. At the bottom of this post is a Thrive PowerPoint for chapter 29.
Thrive PowerPoint Industrial Revolution
Mr. Geoffrion is a History Teacher, Podcaster, and AP Reader. If you are visiting this site, it is highly likely that you are one of his AP Euro students.